Stretching to Improve Fitness and Performance

Many military members don't realize that a few minutes of stretching could be the missing ingredient to reaching their goals.

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Many members of military fitness centers spend hours running on treadmills, lifting weights or doing endless crunches as they try to drop a few pounds, cut time from their two-mile run or stay within BMI or waist circumference limits.

But what too many don't realize is that the two minutes of stretching they do at the beginning or end of those workouts - if they even do that much - could be the missing ingredient to not only reaching their goals, but exceeding them.

While study results are mixed, most agree that stretching can help improve flexibility and, along with strength and cardio, it is one of the pillars of fitness. Better flexibility may improve performance in physical activities or decrease the risk of injuries by helping joints move through their full range of motion. This can be beneficial on the athletic field or on the battlefield in many ways.

"There are so many benefits of stretching that it is essential that trainers and other fitness professionals teach the importance of it to not only clients, but every member in a facility," says Fred Capo, a certified personal trainer from New York. "But too many fitness pros either don't understand the importance or just take for granted that people are going to do it."

The problem is that too many fitness centers and their staff members don't emphasize the importance of stretching or rely on classes such as yoga to be the link between fitness and flexibility, missing a large portion of those that could benefit from increased flexibility.

"Yoga is an excellent practice for overall health and well-being of mind, body and spirit," says Janine Agoglia, a longtime yoga instructor. "But there are flexibility aspects of yoga that military personnel can use to increase their overall strength and performance while reducing the chance of injury for those that may never want to step inside a yoga class. It is important that fitness staff help all members increase their flexibility and range of motion to keep them performing optimally."

But, there is more for military fitness staff and management to do than just a couple of quick stretches at the end of a workout to not only keep members flexible, but safe, as well.

"Often, people aren't fully aware of their body and may not be doing the stretch effectively, and they can actually be hurting themselves," says Agoglia. "Especially competitive types and those who are used to pushing themselves can fall into this trap. These people can be too busy 'competing' to reach their toes that they don't realize they are straining their lower back, rather than stretching the hamstrings."

Stretching isn't typically the part of fitness people think about when looking to improve overall strength, speed and performance, but, when taught correctly by fitness professionals, it can help take athletes and servicemen and women to the next level.

Stretching the Education To help fitness center members get the most out of their training, remind them to keep these tips in mind.
  • Stretching is not a warm-up. Utilize foam rolling and dynamic warmup activities prior to actual fitness training or an athletic event. Hold off on stretching until after the activity when the muscles are warm.
  • Focus on major muscle groups. Have clients and members focus on calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also have them stretch muscles and joints that they routinely use at work or play.
  • Don't bounce. Stretching is not the same as dynamic warmups, so instruct members to hold each stretch for about 30 seconds and repeat each stretch three or four times.
  • Don't aim for pain. There will, of course, be some tension while stretching, but there should not be any pain. Teach members not to strain to get deeper into a stretch or they will risk doing more harm than good.
  • Make stretches sport or activity-specific. Some evidence suggests that it's helpful to do stretches tailored for a sport or activity. So, knowing that a member is training for a 5k or a power contest, plan stretches to help those movements.
  • Keep up with stretching. Stretching can be time consuming. But the best benefits come from stretching regularly, at least two or three times a week.

Interested in more military-specific content? Sign up for AB Military News, our weekly newsletter with content specifically for military sports, recreation and fitness professionals.

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